Nutrient shakes replace meal breaks in Silicon Valley

Signal of change / Nutrient shakes replace meal breaks in Silicon Valley

By Alex Caldwell / 08 Jun 2015

Have you ever eaten at your desk? The likely answer is yes, but not perhaps to the extent that software developers in Silicon Valley are doing, where hundreds of technology workers are getting by without any solid food until 7pm, subsisting solely on a thick beige shake. These liquid meals from companies like Soylent and People Chow are inexpensive and just involve adding water to a pre-packaged powder which includes Magnesium, Zinc, vitamins and sometimes adding oils for extra flavour.

These products have become so popular that there are now six month waiting lists for initial orders. Powdered food has long been popular with athletes and dieters seeking extra supplements, but these new formulations are reaching new audiences due to their lower levels of protein and sugar. Rob Rhinehart, a software engineer came up with the idea for Soylent in 2013 while working long hours at a wireless communications company. He realized he was eating poorly and wanted to create something that could be “universally applicable” for hard-working people like himself. The company is said to have shipped more than the equivalent of six million ‘meals’ across the United States.

The taste of these shakes has been likened to bland, gritty pancake batter, but for some the appeal of something quick and cheap overrides the experience. In San Francisco the cost of eating out can be upwards of $50, whereas a week’s worth of Soylent totals $85. The time ‘wasted’ by eating is, in Silicon Valley parlance a “pain point” even for the highest echelon of techie. Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder, once said, “If there was a way that I couldn’t eat so I could work more, I would not eat. I wish there was a way to get nutrients without sitting down for a meal”.

So what?

Dieticians are concerned. Samual Accardi, lead dietician for nutrition intelligence company Mind Plus Matter, worries that low protein quality in the drinks can give the user more calories and protein than they actually need, and that overdosing can lead to kidney failure. There are question marks over the long-term health implications of the products, including the impact of intensive use on the microorganisms in the gut, and indeed how important the act of chewing is for the digestive system. Newly published research from Tohoku University in Japan found that when mice lived on powdered food substitutes instead of pellets, they experienced a rash of consequences, such as “elevations of blood glucose, hypertension, and abnormal behaviours.” On the other hand, many Soylent converts who didn’t have the time for proper meals were previously eating processed ready-meals, which can be high in fat and sugar. For them, is Soylent a step in the right direction?

Another important question is how the decline of sit-down meals could affect social connections. Loneliness is rising as a public health concern: studies link both social isolation and loneliness to increased mortality - though not independent of other demographic and health factors. Some who have tried Soylent and given it up claim to miss the excitement of a varied diet and the sense of accomplishment they get from preparing their own food. That's no obstacle to the shake, says Rhinehart: he imagines a future where meals for utility and function are separated.

Key for Soylent and other such shakes is a sustainable source of nutrients. Where are they sourced? How efficient is the production process?

And finally - what evidence is there that working continually, rather than taking breaks, increases productivity? What does relentless efficiency do to creativity?

Image credit: David Simmonds / Flickr


New York Times (2015, May 24) In Busy Silicon Valley, Protein Powder Is in Demand

The New Yorker (2014, May 12) The End of Food

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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